APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are we still dealing with the fallout of the energy crisis?

The recent failure of Solyndra, a solar power equipment manufacturer who had received from the US Government $527.8 million dollars (Jim Snyder / Bloomberg, September 9) to manufacture solar panel equipment and which declared bankruptcy with liabilities of $783.8 million dollars, brings much of the US energy policy .. such as it is .. into sharp focus for us today. The decision by the Federal Government to investigate this firm for ties to the Obama administration further shines the spotlight on the situation not just for solar power manufacturers, but for the focus of the future energy policy of this country.

Even prior to the Three Mile Island accident, a growing segment of the US population felt that solar energy would be the most desirable power source for the future. If we look at a thorough work of the time, "Public Opinion and Nuclear Energy," Nealey / Melber / Rankin, Battelle Human Affairs Research Center 1983, we find, after very detailed information on many survey questions relating all kinds of energy production in the US, the summation in part reading thus:

"Since 1976 the public has given more support to solar energy compared to all other energy sources; there is strong majority consensus that efforts should be made to develop this energy source. Solar energy is selected most often as the best source for the future by the general public."

We might attribute this feeling, at this time, to the energy crisis - whether real or perceived. In this same volume on page 163 we see clearly that the public, in the 70's and early 80's believed in a real shortage both in energy supply and in raw materials. Many had felt that solar was the best answer prior to Three Mile Island; many more felt so after, even though as pointed out on this blog before at least twice, public opinion in favor of nuclear energy actually DID recover toward the positive beginning within a few years after the Three Mile Island accident. Regardless of where it was going to come from, though, the public at the time did believe everything was in short supply - except for oil, which we could not possibly control the prices of. Solar seemed the best answer for those who were averse to supply shortage (the sun still has well over three quarters of a tank of fuel left, if I may say) and were thinking in environmental terms as well.

Of course, one wonders immediately, given the strong positive feeling back then about solar energy, whether or not the public were being fed pipe dreams by either some industry components, universities with large grants to study solar, or the government. We might easily point, for such an example, to the continuing story of the perpetually "about twenty years away from practical power" area of fusion energy. The United States launched Project Sherwood prior to the end of the 1950's to work on fusion power; at that time, it was thought to be about 20 years away. Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co. and RCA had been given a contract to build a large experimental device called a Stellarator, and C-Stellarator Associates Inc. was formed with these companies to build it. Fast forward to now, today, in the year 2011; we're still said to be roughly 20 years away. This is what we call a moving target, or better yet a pipe dream.

Solar is another less severe example of a pipe dream. Certainly, very much was being pushed in favor of solar energy during those years. "The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power," Saunders Miller / Praeger 1976, which is really a volume that attempts to make no pretense about being wholly PRO-coal and anti-nuclear, includes the following statement discussing solar power:

"Because solar power will present the consumer with at least a partial alternative to the purchase of energy from a central distribution system, the sale of electrical units by power companies may begin to decline from the future levels currently projected; as discussed in Chapter 10, this may seriously impact the financial stability of utilities."

Anyone who remembers those years remembers the fairly constant flood of information on television and in magazines about the future of solar energy - and as such, in that context, it might have been possible to believe the last statement of the above quoted paragraph.

In today's context, and knowing what has actually happened in the last thirty years, that statement is ludicrous. No one would make such a claim today. While some people are installing solar heating and solar cell electric power equipment, and some factories are doing so as well, no utility is today threatened in its core stability by scores of thousands of homes and businesses "going off the grid," which is what this statement references.

Incredible - in the original sense of the word - as that 1976 perception seems now, it is that very type of thinking that appears still to be coloring much of our energy policy. All of the intervening years of safe and reliable nuclear plant operation in the United States since Three Mile Island have incredibly increased public opinion in favor of nuclear energy but apparently the failure of solar energy to really deliver on any promises in the widest, broadest sense implied by these now thirty plus year old works seems not to have dawned on anyone.

Perhaps now it will given the failure of three solar equipment manufacturers in one year.

The statements by Solyndra indicate that at least some in the company feel that Chinese competition cannot be beaten since it is funded by the Chinese government. One wonders what percentage of valuation constitutes "federally funded" or "nationalized," since Solyndra was into the US Government for almost $530 million dollars, had a peak valuation of roughly $1 billion or a little less than twice this (meaning the federal investment was over half) and now has debts in bankruptcy of roughly $780 million. Many people will want to know just what percentage, then, of federal funding would make the business competitive with China even if not profitable. (One wonders when the anti-dumping legislation motions will be made, if Chinese zero-profit or else sales on the loss are really the culprit.)

There can be no question that in a theoretical sense there is no better way to develop two of the things we need - heat, directly and electricity either directly or indirectly - from solar energy. There is no other source that can be placed on one's roof, the roof of one's business, on the roof of a whole apartment building, or in a field, say, to power a small town with no other effect than merely the weight of its mass and the space envelope required. At this stage of the game, that is where the long-made promises of solar energy meet the delivery; at the home and at the small factory and small community level.

Simple facts concerning long-range transmission of electric power make a giant solar farm "out West" powering the country, or most of it, a pipe dream. Weather conditions make construction of more localized solar farm power plants questionable at best in terms of the amount of time they can deliver their rated capacity (known as the 'capacity factor.') This limits, at least for now, the upper size of solar generating stations to something very flexible, very tangible, but not highly profitable for utility companies and more likely owned and installed by the end user.

Our federal investing in energy sources seems, then, upside down if our larger problems are considered either as supply related (cost of oil, total supply of oil, and others) or environmentally related (i.e. global warming.) Solar is in no position at this moment, domestically produced, to combat either of these usefully on a wide scale. (One quickly wonders what buying $500 million worth of solar equipment from China might have done in an experimental large installation.) Furthermore, as evidenced by the 1100 jobs lost when Solyndra shut down, it appears too that the ongoing job crisis cannot in any substantial way be solved by employing people in the areas of solar energy, be it manufacturing or installation.

Of course, keeping with the normal focus of this blog, nuclear energy is in the position to do all of the things solar has been either promising or has had assumed for it for these thirty years. Further, nuclear energy is "shovel ready" now, and thousands could be put to work now building new plants. Vogtle is just one example of a large mobilized work force from diverse fields having been assembled from the ether to do a very large (two plant APR1000) job. These workers will develop further experience and skill that could be expanded upon by others and spread.

In the final analysis, solar energy, unlike fusion energy, is not just on the horizon but here. We know how and where it will work. However, its myth even today stands larger than its delivery, and the risk in entering business to develop it seems far riskier given the year's events than any other energy technology. Solar energy still has yet to deliver as good as promised.

2:30 PM Eastern Thursday September 15, 2011


  1. The vision of simply plugging in your house to the sun and living free as rain forever is a seductive desire. I wonder what size nuke plant a half-billion dollars could've gotten you. Surely a submarine nuke sized one at least! Much of nuclear energy's growth woes are self inflicted, what the TOTAL lack of any public education or media ad campaigns. For Petesake, even Gas has ads debunking Fraking! The nuclear industry could've countered Fukushima the samw way! I'd like the Carnival to circulate a roster of pro-nuclear politicans, state as well as federal.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. @James: I'll see what I can do about that list! Capital idea.

  3. Hi!

    Really enjoyed this even-handed response toward some really bad solar news.

    Wonder what the costs are compared with fossil fuels when all the variables/subsidies are taken into account.

    I hadn't realized that the gas/oil companies are subsidized in the U.S. until moving to Japan and paying almost twice as much at the pump.

    Thanks as always for continuing to report so thoroughly on Fukushima!!

  4. Hi Will,
    Fantastic write-up! My grandfather worked for Stone & Webster as a heating and cooling engineer and was a lead engineer on many power installations across the north east US.

    I’ll never forget what he said the day the Three Mile Island accident happened.

    “There will never be another nuclear generating station startup in the US again”.

    He said it wasn’t because of public perception, but the bankers and insurance industry’s perception. That the "inherent risk" or the cost of financing and insuring a nuclear power plant against catastrophic failure would be insurmountable.

    If I were a banker or insurer and had to put my billions of dollars on the line, I simply could not ignore the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima that will never pay for themselves. Or the 43 out of 54 that remain idle in the country of Japan since March 11th.

    Your comparison of nuclear to solar energy seems to also conveniently leave out the spent nuclear fuel conundrum as well. Where is all the spent nuclear fuel today? Where is it supposed to be? How much will it cost to get it there and secure it? What is the cost in decommissioning a solar plant compared to nuclear?

    Also, don’t you ever forget that Hanford (the first US nuclear complex) was designed, paid for (with taxes), and built, for nothing other than the production of nuclear weapons.

    The fact that it never had transmission lines should give you a good idea of what the nuclear industry’s true intentions were. EVIL

    “Atoms for Peace” was the first mistake in Nuclear Proliferation. Russell–Einstein Manifesto.

    If we can build a nuclear bomb, so could anybody.

  5. @tasha - you are confused about the reason why fuel prices are higher in countries like Japan and most of Europe than in the United States. It is NOT because we subsidize the cost of fuel, it is because THEY tax fuel even more than we do.

    I wish that we imposed higher taxes on fossil fuel to discourage excessive use - like buying a Hummer or Suburban for an individual commute.

    You are correct, however, that many of the costs of fossil fuel do not show up at the pump. They often show up in the defense budget - we pay far too much attention to places in the world where our exceedingly wealthy petroleum companies have extraction operations.

    @Will - you might be interested in telling your readers about the promotional support that the fossil fuel industry has provided to solar energy over the years. My theory is that the support has been carefully designed as a seductive distraction - the fossil fuel companies know that solar cannot hope to compete or reduce their sales volume but it does keep people thinking that there might be something better than nuclear.

    Check out this ad from the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island


    Notice the prominence of "Solar Not Nuclear" and the very small type that attributes the funding for the ad.

  6. Hi Rusty! Thanks for waiting for me to get around to your comment. I'm not going to post your second smart-@$$ comment, but I'll sure respond to your first. It's important that we see just how well informed the anti-nuclear crowd really is.

    First of all, your Grandfather had no clue what he was talking about. Maybe he - and you - should only talk about things you know something about. Here is a list of the nuclear plants in the United States with initial operating license (initial criticality / initial startup) dates that are after the Three Mile Island accident, from the NRC's own listings:

    Beaver Valley 2
    Braidwood 1
    Braidwood 2
    Byron 1
    Byron 2
    Catawba 1
    Catawba 2
    Clinton 1
    Columbia 2
    Comanche Peak 1
    Comanche Peak 2
    Diablo Canyon 1
    Diablo Canyon 2
    Fermi 2
    Grand Gulf 1
    Hope Creek 1
    Farley 2
    LaSalle 1
    LaSalle 2
    Limerick 1
    Limerick 2
    McGuire 1
    McGuire 2
    Millstone 3
    Monticello 1
    Nine Mile Point 1
    North Anna 1
    North Anna 2
    Palo Verde 1
    Palo Verde 2
    Palo Verde 3
    Perry 1
    River Bend 1
    St. Lucie 2
    Salem 2
    San Onofre 2
    San Onofre 3
    Seabrook 1
    Sequoyah 1
    Sequoyah 2
    Shearon Harris 1
    South Texas 1
    South Texas 2
    Summer 1
    Susquehanna 1
    Susquehanna 2
    Vogtle 1
    Vogtle 2
    Waterford 3
    Watts Bar 1
    Wolf Creek 1

    That's about HALF of the entire fleet of commercial power plants operating right now. That's not to mention another fifty plus USN plants between submarines and aircraft carriers - probably more. I didn't look that one up.

    This looks to me to be a non-zero number greater than one hundred, total, roughly.

    All of the spent nuclear fuel is either stored on site in safe conditions (you'll note that the recent East Coast quake seriously rattled but did not damage spent fuel storage at North Anna) or else at INEEL (formerly NRTS) Idaho. Work continues on either finishing or abandoning Yucca and then either using it or finding a better solution elsewhere - like in a deep salt formation. The spent fuel is safe.

    Your comments about Hanford, and as relates to the Manhattan project are so over the top as to need no reply. We see who you are.

    Like I said- your second comment is ridiculous. You need to go off and educate yourself a little more about not only nuclear energy, but other forms in order to find out just what the real promise for any is, and what the perils are. You clearly have no clue. But thanks for writing.

    Hope you read Rod's comment, and his article featured in the most recent Carnival. These really oughta rile you up. Too bad he's right on target.